Cairns Diving

Cairns diving. Coral gardens, bommies and lagoons are all waiting for your discovery when you go on a Cairns diving tour, so step right up and stride right in to explore Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef. A vibrant, living underwater landscape with a kaleidoscope of corals, schools of fusiliers streaming through the clear waters, anemonefish, snapper and sweetlips, feather stars, chromis and giant clams. These are some of the things that we’ve seen on every Cairns dive trip we’ve ever done, and we’ve done a lot – over 200 collectively. Beyond that, you might see any number of the more than 1,500 fish species that live on the reef, as well as reef sharks, sea turtles, stingrays and more.


There are more than 20 Cairns diving tours departing each day. Picking the best one for your trip can be difficult – that’s why we’ve prepared our guide to Cairns diving. This information is based on our personal experience, which has been gathered over more than 15 years of diving from Cairns – we’ve been on every tour boat and dived on every reef they visit. We want you to have the very best time on your Cairns diving tour, because we know for most people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience – so let’s make it great! Read on for our personal tips, helpful hints, information and considerations.

Diving With Sweetlips Cairns

Cairns diving tours cater to scuba divers of all experience levels, from those wanting to try it for the first time, to people wanting to do a diving course, diving day trips and liveaboard trips, Cairns has it all. On this page we focus on the Cairns diving day tours, which visit outer reef locations, reef pontoons and tropical islands, and there are about 20 boats providing these tours each and every day from Cairns. Diving tours cater to scuba divers of all experience levels and also provide the opportunity for people to try scuba diving for the first time, with no experience necessary. The good news is, there are no bad Cairns diving tours. However, there are differences between the boats and tours, mainly regarding destination and inclusions, and it can be hard to find the right fit for your experience and expectations. So, let’s break it down in a little more detail, to help you find the best Cairns diving tour for you.

Things To Consider When Choosing A Diving Tour


Diving Ability / Confidence.

Your diving ability, confidence and experience are big factors when considering what the best Cairns diving tour is for you. As the closest city to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is the mecca for diving tours and its reef operators cater to the needs of scuba divers of all experience levels. For confident certified divers there are three boats / operators that offer unguided diving – Divers Den, Tusa Reef Tours and Reef Experience. The other boats provide guided diving with experienced Instructors, which means you don’t have to worry about ‘finding the boat’ at the end of your dive. Guided diving is also perfect for divers who do not have much experience or have not dived lately. All boats provide and include all the scuba gear needed in conjunction with their dive tour prices.

Diving Under a Pontoon Cairns

How Many Dives Do You Want To Do.

All the Cairns diving tour boats provide the opportunity to do at least 2 certified dives, some provide the opportunity to do 3 certified dives. If this is your one chance to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, then you want to pick the tour that provides the most number of dives, so make sure you look for this information / detail on the individual tour listings. Same thing for those wanting to try scuba diving for the first time, on an introductory dive (more on this below). Some boats offer 1 introductory dive per person, and some offer the chance to do 2, look for these details in the individual tour listings. Also, not everyone can try an introductory dive, more information on this below.

Try Diving Cairns

I Want To Try Scuba Diving For The First Time.

If you have not dived before, but you want to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, then this is possible. All of Cairns’ diving tour boats offer introductory scuba diving. You do not need any prior experience to participate in this and all introductory scuba diving is guided. The minimum age to participate is 12, the maximum depth is 8-10m and some health conditions will prevent you from participating (this includes asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, pregnancy and more). To avoid disappointment, you should pre-book your introductory diving. A dive and equipment briefing is provided on the way to the reef, and you are fully supervised by an experienced, certified Dive Instructor at all times.

Snorkeling and Diving Cairns

Who Are You Seeing The Reef With.

This is a really important consideration, as many certified scuba divers travel with non-diving companions / family members. In this instance, you want to ensure your Cairns dive destination offers your companions a range of activities and opportunities to explore the reef too. If your companion/s is a confident snorkeler, then you can choose any of the destinations (outer reef, island or pontoon), noting that the outer reef often has the best underwater visibility. If they are not confident snorkelers, then a pontoon or island might be the best option – and in that order too. Pontoons generally provide certified divers good visibility and coral cover, whilst also offering snorkelling, glass bottom boat tours, underwater observatories and more. The diving around Cairns’ islands (generally speaking) have poorer visibility than pontoons and outer reef destinations, but have sheltered, shallow waters for snorkelers.

Other Things Diving Cairns

What Other Activities Are Included / Available.

The fleet of Cairns reef operators visit three main ‘destinations’, the outer reef, reef pontoons and tropical islands (more on this below). Some of the outer reef boats provide glass bottom boat tours and guided snorkelling tours, but lots do not (check the details in the individual tour listings). All of the pontoons offer lots of other activities which are included in the tour price, such as glass bottom boat tours, semi-submersible tours, scenic helicopter rides and more. The islands have land and water-based activities. If you are a certified scuba diver, chances are the other activities available will not be of much interest, as most of your time will be spent diving with some snorkelling, but it’s always good to know – especially if you are travelling with non-divers.

Palm Ove Diving

Where Are You Staying.

There are many Great Barrier Reef diving tours departing Cairns and Port Douglas, every day. The reefs they visit are usually comparable to each other, regarding coral cover and marine life. The reef operators are experienced and professional, dedicated to ensuring your Great Barrier Reef tour is the best it can be. As such, if you are staying in Cairns or at any of its northern beaches, including Palm Cove, you should pick a Cairns diving tour. If you are staying in Port Douglas, pick a Port Douglas diving tour. In doing this, you spend less time travelling between the towns and focus the day on the reef experience.


What Time Of Year Are You Visiting.

Let me just say, there is no bad time of year to visit the Great Barrier Reef, the underwater landscape remains largely unchanged with the turning of the seasons. One thing that does change is the water temperature. In spring and summer, the water temperature hovers between a delightful 26 and 30 degrees Celsius. Underwater visibility is usually excellent, although can be impacted by coastal rains in February and March. Local divers will tell you November is their favourite month to dive and if you want to catch the annual Coral Spawning, then aim for October and November. Between May and October, the water is cooler ranging between 23 and 26 degrees Celsius, and it can be windier. There’s a chance of seeing whales in June and July.

Diving With Nemo Cairns

Tour Prices and Inclusions

Tour price is always a consideration and please note that scuba diving – be it certified or introductory – is always in addition to the ‘normal’ reef tour price. It is a scaled pricing structure, meaning the more dives you do, the cheaper subsequent dives become. As a general rule of thumb the Cairns diving tours to the pontoons are the most expensive, followed by the outer reef locations and finally the islands. We have already noted what the differences are between what’s available at these locations above (and will go into more detail below), but if you are a certified scuba diver wanting maximum dive time on the reef, then an outer reef destination is the one for you, followed by a pontoon and then an island. This is the same for those wanting to try diving for the first time.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the world and seeing it for yourself is just amazing. Scuba diving opens this world right up, providing you with the opportunity to explore its coral gardens and lagoons at your leisure. Certified divers can choose a day diving tour (which we write about on this page) or a liveaboard tour (which we will add to the site in due course). For Cairns diving day tours, most locations have a maximum depth of 22m, with most diving done at 18m and above, which is perfect for Open Water divers. You do not need to be an Advanced diver to enjoy the Cairns diving tours.

Kids Diving Tours Cairns

Ethan’s Thoughts. Scuba Diving As A Junior Open Water Diver.

I became a certified Junior Open Water Diver when I was 10 years old. I did my course with Quicksilver in Port Douglas and my instructor was Hayley Bennet – she was the best dive instructor of all time. She was really good with little kids like me. I couldn’t even stand up in the pool – because it was too deep and I was too short – so she got me a packing crate to stand on. When I did my open water test it was blowing 28 knots – being in the water and having to take off my BCD and put it back on, was really difficult – but I did it, and I passed my course. I am 11 years old now and have been scuba diving for 1 year, completing 35 dives on the Great Barrier Reef. I love diving. It lets me get up close to the marine life and see them, without having to dive down and come up again, like you do when snorkelling. I love being under the water. It cuts away all the noise and there are no waves, washing me around. My favourite things to see are Christmas Tree Worms, which I see on every dive, I love watching them retract back into their homes, and turtles. As I get older, I am excited to be a dive Master and when I grow up, I want to get a job on a boat, because I think the reef is amazing.


Cairns Diving Locations

All the Cairns diving tours visit the Great Barrier Reef. Their destinations include the outer reef, reef pontoons and islands. Every tour operator has licensed moorings (often many locations) at various sites across the reef. Outer reef tours pick the best locations on the day to maximise your experience, pending weather at the time of travel. Reef pontoons are permanently moored in protected coral lagoons and the islands, they are always there, and tides can play a big role in determining underwater visibility for divers. Each of these Cairns diving locations offer different experiences, so let’s dive in to explain what they are.

Diving Outer Reef Cairns

Outer Reefs.

The outer reefs are the furthest point from the mainland and are close to the edge of the Continental Shelf (hence their name). The Cairns diving tours to the outer reefs visit a range of destinations and sites, on Norman, Saxon, Hastings, Flynn, Milln, and Pellowe Reef. The visibility is usually excellent on the outer reefs and the marine life is abundant. Being the furthest location from shore, there will be more current at an outer reef site, than at a pontoon or island. For certified and introductory scuba divers, water entry at the outer reef sites is usually giant stride off the side of the boat, or from a platform which is lowered to water level. Most boats insist on guided diving, although 3 operators allow unguided diving. The outer reef boats usually take around 150 guests per day, and the majority of these are snorkelers or people trying an introductory dive. In our experience, there is usually no more than around 25 certified scuba divers on these trips, and they are usually allowed in the water first.

Diving from a Pontoon Cairns

Reef Pontoons.

Reef pontoons are large platforms which are permanently moored in coral lagoons. The platforms can have many levels, offering shaded seating and sundecks. For scuba divers – certified and introductory – water entry is generally down a staircase into the water and all diving is guided. The boats and reef pontoons accommodate a few hundred guests (so many more people than an outer reef boat) and in our experience, there is usually no more than around 20 certified scuba divers on these trips. The pontoons provide a range of other activities, including glass bottom boat tours and underwater observatories, which are included in the tour price, making this a good option for divers travelling with non-diving companions.

Scuba Diving Green Island

Tropical Islands.

You can go diving at Green Island, but not Fitzroy Island. Green Island is the only island on the Great Barrier Reef to have rainforest vegetation. The diving – certified and introductory – is undertaken on the fringing reefs which surround the island. The maximum depth is around 15m and all scuba diving at Green Island is guided. Please note that due to tides, the underwater visibility at Green Island can vary greatly, from 5-15m. Green Island is the closest reef destination to Cairns, so travel time is quick. All of the Cairns diving tours that visit Green Island also provide time for snorkelling and spending time on the island itself. Author’s note – If you are an experienced scuba diver then we recommend an outer reef trip or a pontoon trip, for better visibility and coral cover.

Cairns Snorkeling Live Aboard

Liveaboard Boats.

Liveaboard boats are an awesome way to maximise your Cairns diving experience on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a range of boats, offering trips of various durations and visiting an array of destinations. Some stay in the outer reefs off Cairns, and you can book diving tours on these boats that last anywhere from 1 night to 5 nights. These are suitable for divers of all experience levels, including those who want to learn to dive on the reef, try scuba diving for the first time (no experience necessary) and certified scuba divers. There are 2 operators that go further afield to the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef, and these trips are for experienced, certified scuba divers only. More content regarding liveaboard boats will be added to this site in the coming weeks.


Cairns Dive Site Map

The map provided outlines numerous dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef. While diligent attempts have been made to accurately place the markers, the precise locations and name of each dive site cannot be guaranteed.

Upolu Cay
Batt Reef
No Name Reef
Flare Point
Advanced Bommie
Norman Reef
St Crispin Reef
Wild West
Watson's Bay
Hedley Reef
Briggs Reef
The Fishbowl
Three Sisters
Saxon Reef
Mackay Reef
Arlington Reef
G Spot
Mackay Reef
Steve's Bomme
Lighthouse Bommie
Bashful Bommie
Paradise Reef
Ruby Reef
Public Mooring
Thetfort Reef
Elford Reef
Steve's Boomie
Pavona Clavus
Undine Reef
Escape Reef
Michaelmas Cay
Flora Reef
Turtle Bommie
Oysterland Reef
Cobia Hole
Temple Of Doom
Pixie Pinnacle
The Drop Off
Hastings Reef
Briggs Reef
Challenger Bay
Reef Magic
Gorgonian Gardens
Pixie Wall
Euston Reef
Magic Wall
Whale Bommie
Goggle Gardens
Pellowe Reef
The Horseshoe
Broken Patches
Ga Pontoon
Fitzroy Island
Hicks Reef
Turtle Bay
Wild Side East
Agincourt Reef
Tracy's Wonderland
Wild Side West
Breaking Patches
Endeavour Reef
Waynes World
Twin Peaks
Coates Reef
Pixie Gardens
Martin Reef
Rudder Reef
Michaelmas Reef
Your Place
The Wedge
Gone Again
Opal Reef
The Canyons
Tongue Reef
Bob's Bommie
Milln Reef
Cod Hole
Maori Reef
Carter Reef
Turtle Bay
Fish City
Blue Buoy
Pickersgill Reef
Moore Reef
Turtle Bommie
Sudburry Reef
Scott Reef
Shark Cafe
Split Bommie
North Bay
Flyn Reef
Pixie's Pinnacle
Chinaman Reef
The Edge
Blue Lagoon
Cains Reef
Clam Gardens
Barracuda Pass
Snake Pit
Dog's Bommie

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Questions About Cairns Diving Tours

Is diving in Cairns worth it?

Yes! Diving in Cairns is definitely worth it – apart from the awesome underwater visibility, Cairns is the closest city to the reef, which means less time travelling and more time diving. There’s a range of dive boats visiting an array of destinations, which enables you to pick the best tour to suit your diving abilities and the needs of any other travelers visiting the reef with you. NB: If you are wondering, ‘what’s better for diving, Cairns or the Whitsundays?’ – we’ve dived in both locations and can assure you the visibility and coral cover you will see from Cairns, is better than the Whitsundays.

Where is the best place to dive in Cairns?

There is no right or wrong answer here – as it all depends on your own experience levels and that of anyone else you are travelling with. If you are an experienced, certified scuba diver, the best place to dive in Cairns is on the outer reef. If you are travelling with non-diving companions who are confident swimming in the open ocean, then it’s still the outer reef. If you are travelling with people who are not confident in the open ocean, then a pontoon tour might be for you or an island tour.

Can I scuba dive from the Cairns beaches?

Scuba diving directly from the beaches in Cairns isn’t possible, as the nearest reef is approximately 20 kilometres offshore. To explore the reef, you’ll have to book a diving tour. These tours typically depart from Cairns or Port Douglas, and they will transport you by boat to a suitable reef location for scuba diving,

How far from shore to dive in Cairns?

The closest place to dive from Cairns is Green Island, which is about 24km offshore. The next closest place to dive from Cairns are the pontoons at Moore Reef, which are around 47km offshore from Cairns. Finally the outer reefs, which are around 55km from Cairns.

How many dive operators in Cairns?

There are around 20 dive operators working from Cairns. Some provide learn to dive courses, some operate diving day tours and others provide liveaboard diving tours. All are experienced reef tourism operators.

How deep is the diving off Cairns?

The diving off Cairns is usually a maximum of 25m, but most dives off Cairns go no deeper than 18m.

Are Cairns diving tours suitable for Open Water divers?

Yes – Cairns diving tours are suitable for Open Water divers. Most of the diving day tours and liveaboard tours on Cairns’ outer reefs do not go any deeper than 18m.

Are Cairns diving tours suitable for Junior Open Water divers?

The answer is ‘Yes’ – our son is a Junior Open Water diver and he has completed 35 scuba dives on the boats from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef in the past year. BUT we definitely recommend touching base with your dive operator of choice prior to booking, to ensure they can accommodate Junior Open Water Divers. As most dive boats insist on guided dives and as Junior Open Water divers can only go to a maximum of 12m it can sometimes cause some ‘complications’ on the dive deck.

Which is the best boat to go scuba diving on from Cairns?

Again, there is no ‘best boat’ as such. There are several award winning boats and tour operators, there are family owned tours which pride themselves on customer service, there are boats that go to islands, pontoons and the outer reef. The question to ask is ‘what boat is best for me?’ and hopefully you can find that answer with our tips and information.

What is the newest dive boat in Cairns?

The newest dive boat in Cairns is Evolution, which is run by Down Under Cruise and Dive. Evolution is a custom designed and built catamaran, that commenced Cairns reef tours in December 2015. As you can imagine, COVID and its associated border closures and restrictions impacted Cairns and the dive market heavily. The majority of reef boats are very well maintained and go through annual refits to ensure reliability and passenger comfort.

Which is the best Cairns reef for diving?

There is no right or wrong answer here, as it all depends on what you like looking at when you dive. For us personally, our favourite Cairns dive site is the 3 Sisters on Milln Reef, which is 3 large pinnacles offering swim throughs and an abundance of marine life. If you have more time and a bigger budget, then head north on a Cairns liveaboard diving trip, as some of our favourive dive sites are on the Ribbon Reefs, including the Cod Hole and Steve’s Bommie.

What’s the best time to go diving in Cairns?

Every month is a good month to go diving in Cairns. The boats leave every day.

What will I see diving from Cairns?

Diving on the outer reefs and pontoon from Cairns, you are guaranteed to see a few things, which includes a kaleidoscope of corals, schools of fusiliers, anemonefish of one form or another, snapper and sweetlips, feather stars, chromis and giant clams. We see these on every single Cairns diving trip, and we’ve done more than 300 dives here. Obviously you will see more than this, but the specifics of which depends on the day and the location and nature. There are more than 1,500 fish species that live on the reef, as well as several types of reef sharks, 6 of the world’s 7 marine turtle species, stingrays and more.

Can you scuba dive in Cairns without diving certificate?

Yes – you can scuba dive in Cairns without a diving certificate. To do this, you must book an introductory dive. There are certain age and health restrictions surrounding this (you must be at least 12 years old, with no asthma, heart disease or diabetes – and more) and you will be guided by an experienced Dive Instructor.

Is it better to go diving from an island or Cairns reef?

If you are confident scuba diver, then it is better to go diving on one of Cairns outer reefs or reef pontoons, over an island. Why? The visibility is usually much better, as is the coral cover and diversity of marine life.

If I can’t swim, can I scuba dive?

Controversial question – some reef operators will say ‘yes’ to this, as when you are doing an introductory dive, you are being held by the hand (literally) during the dive. However, realistically if you can’t swim, then staying submerged under the water during a scuba dive might be incredibly stressful. You must be a capable swimmer to participate in a learn to dive course and become a certified diver. This needs to be demonstrated during the course, by swimming a certain distance and also treading water for a certain amount of time. If you fail these skill tests, you will not become a certified scuba diver.

What’s the best Cairns diving tour?

There is no right or wrong answer here. The best Cairns diving tour is the one that has the best destination and inclusions to deliver you the best experience, based on your individual skills, capabilities and interests. We’ve written our Cairns diving page to provide people with helpful information and advice, based on our years of experience, to help you decide what the best Cairns diving tour is, for you.

Can you scuba dive in Cairns if it's raining?

Yes – obviously you can still scuba dive in Cairns if it’s raining – you are going to get wet anyway. Assuming it is usual rain, the boats will still operate and you will still have an amazing day scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. In the event of a severe weather occasion – such as a tropical cyclone – then the boats will not go to the reef. This is for your safety. Cyclones can occur at any time between December and March, but are relatively rare usually happening once a year or once every couple of years. Also, just because it is raining in Cairns, does not mean it is raining at the reef. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t but irrespective you should still do it.

Is diving better from Cairns or Port Douglas?

Honestly, there is no right or wrong answer here. What we will say, is that there are more diving boat tours in Cairns, than there is in Port Douglas, visiting a greater array of reef destinations. That being said, you should dive from wherever you are staying. If you are in Port Douglas, go diving in Port Douglas. If you are in Cairns, go diving with a Cairns operator. Both towns have fantastic Great Barrier Reef sites and it’s much better to spend your time travelling to the reef – rather than between towns and then the reef.

What’s the worst Cairns diving tour?

The worst Cairns diving tour is the one you take, that doesn’t match your skills, experience and expectations. Do your research, be honest on your own comfort levels, skills and abilities – and that of your family / friends, if you are travelling with them – and book a Cairns diving tour that ticks the right boxes, in regard to destination and inclusions, for you. Our advice and local knowledge is here to help.

Is scuba diving in Cairns dangerous?

No – scuba diving in Cairns is no more or less dangerous than snorkelling anywhere else. In fact, Cairns and Queensland, Australia have some of the most stringent and legislated scuba diving safety standards in the world. At all times, you should dive to your limits, your certification levels and your medical and physical capabilities.

Where is the best place to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef?

Cairns is the best place to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We have more boats, more experience and are closer to it. Our tourism operators pride themselves on customer service, safety and sustainability. Our reef sites have excellent coral cover and biodiversity. It’s all here, waiting for you.

What’s the best city to visit, to see the Great Barrier Reef?

Cairns is best city to visit to see the Great Barrier Reef. We say this having visited the reef from Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville, Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. Our reef sites are close to the coast and the Continental Shelf. The coral cover is excellent and marine life is abundant. You can do day trips, island trips and liveaboard trips. Experienced, award winning tourism operators, delivering reef experiences which will stay with you for a lifetime. If you want wonderful Great Barrier Reef diving tours, book your plane, train or bus tickets to Cairns – we’ll see you on the reef.

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About Us

I Love Cairns is owned by Richard, Julie and Ethan Johnston. Before Ethan was born, Julie and Richard spent many years diving the Great Barrier Reef. After he was born, we spent many years snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef. Now Ethan is a certified Junior Open Water Diver – we do both – snorkelling and diving the reef. When we aren’t blowing bubbles, we love walking on tracks and trails, fossicking and finding treasures, jumping into waterfalls, paddleboarding and 4WDing. We live for weekends and holidays, getting out of the house, off the screen and into nature to make some memories. Where do we go? As many different places as possible, above and below the sea. We love Cairns and hope you are inspired to visit our beautiful, tropical city.

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